In four weeks the Canadian teams will be front and centre at the draft. Currently the Oilers select 3rd, the Flames are 4th, Vancouver is 6th, Toronto is 8th and Winnipeg sits 9th. The Senators would have given Canada 60% of the first ten picks, but Anaheim owns their pick due to last summer’s Bobby Ryan trade.
While the Oilers lack experience on the ice, they have a significant amount of experience selecting near the top of the draft. I spoke with head amateur scout Stu MacGregor on my radio show earlier this week and we discussed the Oil Kings, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl and a few of the other top picks.
My thoughts are in italics.
Gregor: What did you like Edmonton Oil Kings and how they earned a championship?
MacGregor: You know, it’s just a tremendous team. They were a real team. I said to Derek Laxdal earlier in the week, “This team you have this year is a real together group and it’s all about team. This is probably the closest group you’ve ever had and guys that are all pulling for each other.’ And he agreed with me and he’s not knocking the other groups it’s just that this is the most together group that he’s had.
It’s interesting to watch the Memorial Cup because you saw the three champions of each league. They did really well, and when the games were tight and tough, they were able to compete. We saw London who wasn’t able to go through that playoff battle and have that success; they didn’t have the same grounding in their game. And you could just see the difference between the champions that had battled through and gone through game sevens and gone through that adversity and recovered from it. That was very evident in the Oil Kings and their efforts. All season long, nobody thought that they would be as good as they were and they were able to harness everything they had. They had great leadership, they had players that had been to the Memorial Cup before and wanted to get it done this time and you know, really, rose to the occasion because of their experiences and it’s impressive to see that sort of thing.
Gregor: Edgars Kulda was the Memorial Cup MVP, he had a great playoffs, he had a very good regular season as well, as a point a game player. When you’re analyzing players in the draft, and he’s a year older, is it better to take a guy who’s a year older or at times does that work against them because he’s older?
MacGregor: I think it’s just that not every player develops at the same rate. Maybe a 19 year old who has developed a little bit slower, but his game is rising forward and is starting to look like a pro. Maybe he’s a better pick for you.
Then you have to look at the other end of it, when a younger player is competing against older players and in difficult scenario like a Brett Pollock, younger guy, 17, first time to the Memorial Cup.In that pressure he’s able to battle and compete and show that he can play with those players. He deserves a check mark as well. But to answer your question totally, it is a factor but it’s not a factor. You have to determine if that player has potential. Some have pro potential as a 19 year old, and some have pro potential as a 17 year old.
Gregor:Do you think that it’s easier overall to analyze a 19 or 18 year old compared to 17 year old kids? Is there a significant difference?
MacGregor: Well, there is a difference between a 17 year old and a 19 year old. One is probably developing into a man,the other one is still a young adult and hasn’t gotten to that point where he is strong enough. I think that in the circumstance of Edgars Kulda it ends up being that he’s experiencing things, he was coming in from a different country,it’s hard to compare him, he’s a European coming in and having to acclimatise himself to North American game, discovering what he can do and maybe that’s why he’s a little bit later of a developer as well. He’s just finding his feet and has obviously started to find himself and be able to produce.
Gregor:Do you see Michael Dal Colle as more of a winger or a centre?
MacGregor: Well that’s interesting because he’s played centre his whole life until he came to major junior. And they played him on the wall with Boone Jenner and he has continued to play on the wall this past season with Scott Laughton so obviously he can produce on the wall.
There may be an opportunity for him to be a centre as he moves forward, but in all likelihood he’s going to be on the wing again because he will play with Cole Cassels next season in Oshawa. So that will be thee straight seasons on the wall. Will he be able to move back to centre at some point in time? He might well be able to do that because he is a player that holds the puck,controls the puck and is a very good play maker, so he may be a centreman at the end of things but as it stands, he’s probably going to have two or three years of playing wing in major junior.
Gregor: What do you like about Nylander’s game and is there a difference in how you analyze the European players to the North American players because of the style of play?
MacGregor: Well there is a different style of play but they do have to be able to bring their style over so that it can be effective in North America, so there is that transition that they are going to be able to take forward.
So now in Nylander’s case he was born in Calgary. He started his hockey out playing in the United States and has played over in the smaller rinks and was extremely successful and was the most valuable player in the under 17 championship two years ago and was a dominant player there. So he can play on the smaller ice. He’s a dynamic offensive player and he’s an interesting player.
You asked previously about centre and wing,we just interviewed him and he said I can play, centre, wing, left wing, right wing, whatever the coach needs, so he’s a confident, highly skilled young man that is going to be an impact on an organization in the National Hockey League.
***I don’t buy the reports that the Panthers have him ranked the highest. I believe they like him having spoken to one of their scouts, but I didn’t get the impression they have as the best player in the draft.**
Gregor:In an interview do most players tell that they can play wherever the coach wants or are some guys pretty honest and say ‘I’m more comfortable as a winger or centre?
MacGregor: You ask the first question and the answer to that is that always ‘I will play anywhere,’ so then you say to them ‘well where do you feel the best, where can you produce the best’ and they’ll then honestly say, ‘well I feel better at center, or I think I’m a center or I’m a winger.’ They seem to answer that question. Very rarely would someone say ‘I can play anywhere and produce anywhere’ most of them are going to tell you the first time ‘yeah I’ll play anywhere, whatever the coach wants’ but if you ask the second question, where do you feel more comfortable and where are you the most happy, then they will tell you.
Gregor:What did Nylander say when you asked him that?
MacGregor: [laughs] It didn’t matter to him, but he likes playing centre as well because he is a passer. He likes to have the puck. That’s the biggest thing with him; he likes to have the puck. He is a really effective player off of the half wall. He’s a smart player who controls the pace of the game with his skill and his skating so he may be a centre, but I think he could be effective as a winger or a centre.
Gregor:What type of player is Draisaitl? Do you see any comparisons in his style of play — he likes to slow the game down — to a player like Anze Kopitar?
MacGregor: Well I think that Leon Draisaitl is big and strong. I think part of his game is that he changes the pace and people say that he is lazy, but I think they mean that he has to learn to play away from the puck a little bit. He’s not lazy when he has the puck. He has the puck, he’s determined to make a play and he speeds it up as necessary and he slows it down as necessary. As you’ve probably seen him play, that’s his game and he feeds the puck to someone else, to an open teammate that creates a scoring opportunity.
I was fortunate enough to see him play for the German men’s team in an exhibition game against Finland and he was able to take his game from junior to that level and show the same things. He showed the same positives and some of the same negatives. The negatives are just a need to learn to play away from the puck a little bit, be a little bit better, more determined on defence. All of that stuff is going to come, but all of the other stuff he has in his game is just high talent stuff, the skills and the strength and the power with the puck that make his game.
He’ll learn the other stuff; he’ll get better at all of those things. I’m not concerned about that. I think that he’ll just learn and he’ll learn to keep like you say, he’s working at learning to pick up the pace and he will, he’ll get better. I wasn’t totally familiar with what Kopitar did in his draft year because it was a lockout year, and I never saw him play, but people who did said to me that there was similarities and if that’s the case, that certainly bodes well for Leon.
**Learning to play away from the puck is much different than being classified as lazy or soft. I believe who ever the Oilers take at # 3, unless it is Aaron Ekblad, I’d send him back to junior. They don’t need to rush any more players to the NHL.**
Gregor:Sam Reinhart and Draisaitl are both ranked in the top five of most people’s lists, both play in the Western Hockey League, both had 105 points. Draisaitl did it without a really great offensive linemate like Reinhart had with[Jaedon] Descheneau. How quality of linemates factor in when you are evaluating individual players?
MacGregor: I think that’s a factor. You know, but Draisaitl was also able to play with a 20 year old that was a pretty good player in Valcourt, they got from Saskatoon in the last part of the year which did help and enhance his game. Yeah, Descheneau had a tremendous year but I think part of it was because of Reinhart. I think yes that linemates are a factor but not a lot. We look at how you produce as an individual and how you help engage your team and both of them were able to do that at a very high level.
Gregor:You’ve told me in the past that you usually watch the top ranked guys 12-15 times yourself and then collectively 50 or 60 views amongst your entire scouting staff. When you combine all the reports do you remove the outliers, maybe his worst game and his best game, and then look at the rest. How do you combine each individual game from the player?
MacGregor: You’re going to see some good nights and you’re going to see some bad nights and you just want to see what a consistent night is. There is going to be some high level games and there is going to be some low level games. You hope that there would be more high level games at the higher end of the scale than there are lower end of the scale and that would be the difference between a good player and an average player.
So really, you’re kind of right down the middle in trying to weigh everything from the positive game to a negative game.Mostly if it’s a bad game, you toss it out. If they do that every night, well then that’s a problem. He’s not a prospect anymore [laughs]. When they consistently have nine good games and one poor, well, you’d like a player if he could produce 90% of the time. That would be a pretty effective player.
Gregor:[Sam] Bennett and Reinhart what are the similarities and differences in their games?
MacGregor: Ah, well they are pretty similar in lots of ways in that they are both smart, creative players. Bennett has that innate ability to continue to keep the play alive; it never seems to really die. If it looks like the play is broken up, he’s still battling to continue to make it happen. Reinhart does it from more of a thinking standpoint; he’s always in the right position. If the play breaks up, he’s always still looking to steal the puck and he plays a more cerebral game. He’s on pucks just as much,but he doesn’t have quite the same grease in his game maybe as the other kids.
Gregor:When you look at your existing team now, and you look at the teams in the playoffs, how much does size factor into your analysis of the draft?
MacGregor: I think that size is very important. It’s going to be a factor, but my job is to present to management here is what I think is the best player, who our group thinks is the best player and present that to them. If both players are identically even you are obviously going to take the bigger player.
Gregor:There are some guys with size, Nick Ritchie, Brendan Perlini and Jake Virtanen that likely won’t go in the top three, but what do you like about their games, just in case the Oilers trade down?
MacGregor: Well Perlini is a big powerful,fast winger. Ritchie out of Peterborough is a really big, powerful, heavy winger with a great shot. You know, he needs a little consistency in his game but did a tremendous job in the first round of the playoffs to help lead his team past Kingston.
And you look at Jake Virtanen out of Calgary, again, extremely fast, powerful winger with a tremendous shot who’s going to be a load. All of those guys are going to be a load going to the net and they’re difficult to defend because they’re just a big body moving straight ahead and it’s hard to push them off.
Gregor:If you had to compare this draft to the last four, would you say at the top-end talent is even to previous years?
MacGregor: I think that the depth of the draft isn’t quite as deep as it has been, but you’re going to get really good players in the top ten that are going to be contributors in the National Hockey League. Last year’s draft may have been a bit of an outlier in that it was probably one of the best that we have had in a number of years.
Gregor:And next year is that one projecting to be a real deep draft?
MacGregor: That’s what everything is looking like at the moment. It looks like there are maybe three or four high end players that are going to be major impacts.
Gregor:Right now the Oilers only have two picks in the top 100. As a scout, do you feel it’s necessary to get more of them, do you think that there enough quality players in the first 100?
MacGregor: Well I think that there are good players throughout the draft. Our goal is to find the outlier or the diamond in the rough that we can mine out in later rounds. Would we like to have some earlier picks? Absolutely. Are we likely to get some? Probably not. So, we work with what we have and look at some players and project them long-term and hopefully they will be the impact that they hope that they will be and be that outlier that will be an impact on our organization.
Gregor:Can you tell the Oilers fans who haven’t seen Bogdan Yakimov yet, what’s he going to bring to the North American game?
MacGregor: Well that’s what’s going to be interesting because he hasn’t played the North American game, but what he was able to do at the World Juniors was be that big, strong, powerful centreman that won faceoffs, was able to compete, be a strong guy that won puck battles. He was also smart with his positioning, and he was an effective penalty killer and an effective two way centreman. He did have some good offensive chances because of his size and being able to win some puck battles in and around the net. I think he’s a big powerful two-way guy and that’s what we are projecting him to be, but he’s going to have a lot to learn coming over to North America and playing on the smaller ice that he’s never played on before.
I enjoy getting different scouting reports from different people. The more scouts I talk to the more I sense the top-four picks — Bennett, Draisaitl, Ekblad and Reinhart — are all very close. They all possess different attributes, and at this point I don’t believe there is a consensus #1 pick. Last year, Nathan MacKinnon became that guy after the Memorial Cup, but over the next four weeks I think we will see many differing opinions over who the Florida Panthers will select, and who will be available when the Oilers pick at #3.
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